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Monthly Reflection by
Fr. Augustine Vallooran VC

I have come to set the earth on fire" (Lk 12:49) - Fr. Augustine Vallooran VC

Prayer of the Month

Saint of the Month

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux
Feast Day - October 1

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (Born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin, January 2, 1873 – September 30, 1897), or Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, O.C.D., was a French Discalced Carmelite nun. She is popularly known as "The Little Flower of Jesus".

She was born in Rue Saint-Blaise, Alençon, in France on January 2, 1873, the daughter of the Blessed Marie-Azélie Guérin, usually called Zélie, a lacemaker and the Blessed Louis Martin, a jeweler and watchmaker. Both her parents were devout Catholics. Louis had tried to become a canon regular, wanting to enter the Great St Bernard Hospice, but had been refused because he knew no Latin. Zélie, possessed of a strong, active temperament, wished to serve the sick, and had also considered entering consecrated life, but the prioress of the canonesses regular of the Hôtel-Dieu in Alençon had discouraged her enquiry outright.

Louis and Zélie met in early 1858 and married on July 13 of that same year at the basilica Notre Dame of Alençon. Both of great piety; at first they decided to live as brother and sister in a perpetual continence, but when a confessor discouraged them in this, they changed their lifestyle and had 9 children. From 1867 to 1870 they lost 3 infants and 5-and-a-half-year-old Hélène. All 5 of their surviving daughters became nuns.

Soon after her birth in January 1873, the outlook for the survival of Thérèse Martin was very grim. Enteritis, which had already claimed the lives of four of her siblings, threatened Thérèse, and she had to be entrusted to a wet nurse.

On Holy Thursday April 2, 1874, when she was 15 months old, she returned to Alençon where her family surrounded her with affection. She was educated in a very Catholic environment, including Mass attendance at 5:30 AM, the strict observance of fasts, and prayer to the rhythm of the liturgical year. The Martins also practiced charity, visiting the sick and elderly and welcoming the occasional vagabond to their table. Even if she wasn't the model little girl her sisters later portrayed, Thérèse was very sensitive to this education. She played at being a nun. One day she went as far as to wish her mother would die; when scolded, she explained that she wanted the happiness of Paradise for her dear mother.

Described as generally a happy child, she was emotional too, and often cried. At 22, Thérèse, then a Carmelite, admitted: "I was far from being a perfect little girl".

On August 28, 1877, Zélie Martin died of breast cancer, aged 45. Thérèse was barely 4 1/2 years old. Her mother's death dealt her a severe blow and later she would consider that the first part of her life stopped that day. She wrote: "Every detail of my mother's illness is still with me, specially her last weeks on earth." She remembered the bedroom scene where her dying mother received the last sacraments while Thérèse knelt and her father cried.

Three months after Zélie died, Louis Martin left Alençon, where he had spent his youth and marriage, and moved to Lisieux in the Calvados Department of Normandy, where Zélie's pharmacist brother Isidore Guérin lived with his wife and their two daughters, Jeanne and Marie. In Lisieux, Pauline took on the role of Thérèse's Mama. She took this role seriously, and Thérèse grew especially close to her, and to Céline, the sister closest to her in age.

Thérèse was taught at home until she was eight and a half, and then entered the school kept by the Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre Dame du Pre in Lisieux. Thérèse, taught well and carefully by Marie and Pauline, found herself at the top of the class, except for writing and arithmetic. However, because of her young age and high grades, she was bullied. The one who bullied her the most was a girl of fourteen who did poorly at school. Thérèse suffered very much as a result of her sensitivity, and she cried in silence. Furthermore, the boisterous games at recreation were not to her taste. She preferred to tell stories or look after the little ones in the infants class.

When she was nine years old, in October 1882, her sister Pauline who had acted as a "second mother" to her, entered the Carmelite monastery at Lisieux. Thérèse was devastated. She understood that Pauline was cloistered and that she would never come back. "I said in the depths of my heart: Pauline is lost to me!" The shock reawakened in her the trauma caused by her mother's death. She also wanted to join the Carmelites, but was told she was too young. Yet Thérèse so impressed Mother Marie Gonzague, prioress at the time of Pauline's entry to the community that she wrote to comfort her, calling Thérèse "my future little daughter."

At this time, Thérèse was often sick; she began to suffer from nervous tremors. The tremors started one night after her uncle took her for a walk and began to talk about Zélie. Assuming that she was cold, the family covered Therese with blankets, but the tremors continued; she clenched her teeth and could not speak. The family called Dr. Notta, who could make no diagnosis. In 1882, Dr Gayral diagnosed that Thérèse "reacts to an emotional frustration with a neurotic attack." An alarmed, but cloistered, Pauline began to write letters to Thérèse and attempted various strategies to intervene. Eventually Thérèse recovered after she had turned to gaze at the statue of the Virgin Mary placed in Marie's room, where Thérèse had been moved. She reported on 13 May 1883 that she had seen the Virgin smile at her. She wrote: "Our Blessed Lady has come to me, she has smiled upon me. How happy I am." However, when Thérèse told the Carmelite nuns about this vision at the request of her eldest sister Marie, she found herself assailed by their questions and she lost confidence. Self-doubt made her begin to question what had happened. "I thought I had lied - I was unable to look upon myself without a feeling of profound horror."

In October 1886 her oldest sister, Marie, entered the same Carmelite monastery, adding to Thérèse's grief. Christmas Eve of 1886 was a turning point in the life of Therese; she called it her "complete conversion." Years later she stated that on that night she overcame the pressures she had faced since the death of her mother. After nine sad years she had "recovered the strength of soul she had lost when her mother died and, she said, she was to retain it forever.

Before she was fourteen, when she started to experience a period of calm, Thérèse started to read The Imitation of Christ. In May 1887, Thérèse approached her 63-year old father Louis, who was recovering from a small stroke, while he sat in the garden one Sunday afternoon and told him that she wanted to celebrate the anniversary of "her conversion" by entering Carmel before Christmas. Louis and Thérèse both broke down and cried, but Louis got up, gently picked a little white flower, root intact, and gave it to her, explaining the care with which God brought it into being and preserved it until that day.

During the summer, French newspapers were filled with the story of Henri Pranzini, convicted of the brutal murder of two women and a child. To the outraged public Pranzini represented all that threatened the decent way of life in France. In July and August 1887 Thérèse prayed hard for the conversion of Pranzini, so his soul could be saved, yet Pranzini showed no remorse. At the end of August, the newspapers reported that just as Pranzini's neck was placed on the guillotine, he had grabbed a crucifix and kissed it three times. Thérèse was ecstatic and believed that her prayers had saved him. She continued to pray for Pranzini after his death.

In November 1887, Louis took Céline and Thérèse on a diocesan pilgrimage to Rome for the priestly jubilee of Pope Leo XIII. The youngest in the pilgrimage, bright and pretty, Thérèse did not go unnoticed. In Bologna a student boldly jostled against her on purpose. Visits followed one after another: Milan, Venice, Loreto; finally the arrival in Rome. On November 20, 1887, during a general audience with Leo XIII, Thérèse, in her turn, approached the Pope, knelt, and asked him to allow her to enter Carmel at 15. The Pope said: "Well, my child, do what the superiors decide....You will enter if it is God's Will" and he blessed Thérèse. She refused to leave his feet, and the Swiss Guard had to carry her out of the room. The pilgrimage of nearly a month came at a timely point for her burgeoning personality. She learnt more than in many years of study. For the first and last time in her life, she left her native Normandy. Notably she, "who only knew priests in the exercise of their ministry was in their company, heard their conversations, not always edifying - and saw their shortcomings for herself."

She had understood that she had to pray and give her life for sinners like Pranzini. But she prayed especially for priests and this had surprised her since their souls seemed to her to be as pure as crystal.
A month spent with many priests taught her that they are weak and feeble men. She wrote later: "I met many saintly priests that month, but I also found that in spite of being above angels by their supreme dignity, they were none the less men and still subject to human weakness. If the holy priests, 'the salt of the earth', as Jesus calls them in the Gospel, have to be prayed for, what about the lukewarm? Again, as Jesus says, 'If the salt shall lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?' I understood my vocation in Italy."

For the first time too she had associated with young men. "In her brotherless existence, masculinity had been represented only by her father, her Uncle Guérin and various priests. Now she had her first and only experiences - troublesome and tempting ones. Céline declared at the beatification proceedings that one of the young men in the pilgrimage group fell in love with Thérèse ("developed a tender affection for her"). Soon after that, the Bishop of Bayeux authorised the prioress to receive Thérèse, and on April 9, 1888 she became a Carmelite postulant.

Thérèse's time as a postulant began with her welcome into the Carmel, Monday April 9, 1888, the Feast of the Annunciation. She felt peace after she received communion that day and later wrote, "At last my desires were realised, and I cannot describe the deep sweet peace which filled my soul. This peace has remained with me during the eight and a half years of my life here, and has never left me even amid the greatest trials."

She chose a spiritual director, a Jesuit, Father Pichon. At their first meeting, May 28, 1888, she made a general confession going back over all her past sins. She came away from it profoundly relieved. The priest who had himself suffered from scruples, understood her and reassured her. A few months later, he left for Canada, and Thérèse would only be able to ask his advice by letter and his replies were rare. (On 4 July 1897, she confided to Pauline, 'Father Pichon treated me too much like a child; nonetheless he did me a lot of good too by saying that I never committed a mortal sin.' She absorbed the work of John of the Cross, spiritual reading uncommon at the time, especially for such a young nun. "Oh! what insights I have gained from the works of our holy father, St. John of the Cross! When I was seventeen and eighteen, I had no other spiritual nourishment..." She felt a kinship with this classic writer of the Carmelite Order (though nothing seems to have drawn her to the writing of Teresa of Avila). During the course of her novitiate, contemplation of the Holy Face had nourished her inner life. This is an image representing the disfigured face of Jesus during His Passion. And she meditated on certain passages from the prophet Isaiah.

Thérèse prayed without great sensitive emotions, she multiplied the small acts of charity and care for others, doing small services, without making a show of them. She accepted criticism in silence, even unjust criticisms, and smiled at the sisters who were unpleasant to her. She prayed always much for priests, and in particular for Father Hyacinthe Loyson, a famous preacher who had been a Sulpician and a Dominican novice before becoming a Carmelite and provincial of his order, but who had left the Catholic Church in 1869. Three years later he married a young widow, a Protestant, with whom he had a son. After major excommunication had been pronounced against him, he continued to travel round France giving lectures. While clerical papers called Loyson a renegade monk and Leon Bloy lampooned him, Thérèse prayed for her brother. She offered her last communion, 19 August 1897, for Father Hyacinthe.

Thérèse entered the Carmel of Lisieux with the determination to become a saint. But, by the end of 1894, six full calendar years as a Carmelite made her realise how small and insignificant she was. She saw the limitations of all her efforts. She remained small and very far off from the unfailing love that she would wish to practice. She understood then that it was on this very littleness that she must learn to ask God's help.
In October 1895 a young seminarian and subdeacon of the White Fathers, Abbé Bellière, asked the Carmel of Lisieux for a nun who would support - by prayer and sacrifice - his missionary work, and the souls that were in the future to be entrusted to him. Mother Agnes designated Thérèse. She never met Father Bellière but ten letters passed between them.A year later Father Adolphe Roulland (1870–1934) of the Society of Foreign Missions requested the same service of the Lisieux Carmel. Once more Thérèse was assigned the duties of spiritual sister. "It is quite clear that Thérèse, in spite of all her reverence for the priestly office, in both cases felt herself to be the teacher and the giver. It is she who who consoles and warns, encourages and praises, answers questions, offers corroboration, and instructs the priests in the meaning of her little way.

Thérèse's final years were marked by a steady decline that she bore resolutely and without complaint. Tuberculosis was the key element of Thérèse's final suffering, but she saw that as part of her spiritual journey.

As a result of tuberculosis, Thérèse suffered terribly. When she was near death “Her physical suffering kept increasing so that even the doctor himself was driven to exclaim, "Ah! If you only knew what this young nun was suffering!”. During the last hours of Therese’s life, she said, "I would never have believed it was possible to suffer so much, never, never!”. In July 1897, she made a final move to the monastery infirmary. On August 19, 1897, Therese received her last communion. She died on September 30, 1897 at the young age of 24. On her death-bed, she is reported to have said, "I have reached the point of not being able to suffer any more, because all suffering is sweet to me."

Her last words were, "My God, I love you!"

Thérèse was buried on October 4, 1897, in the Carmelite plot in the municipal cemetery at Lisieux, where Louis and Zelie had been buried. Her body was exhumed in 1910; not Incorrupted, but had the pleasant Odour of Sanctity. In March 1923, however, before she was beatified, her body was returned to the Carmel of Lisieux, where it remains.

At fourteen, Thérèse had understood her vocation to pray for priests, to be "an apostle to apostles." In September 1890, at her canonical examination before she professed her religious vows, she was asked why she had come to Carmel. She answered "I came to save souls, and especially to pray for priests." Throughout her life she prayed fervently for priests, and she corresponded with and prayed for a young priest, Adolphe Roulland, and a young seminarian, Maurice Bellière.

St. Thérèse is known today because of her spiritual memoir, L'histoire d'une âme (The Story of a Soul), which she wrote upon the orders of two prioresses of her monastery because of the many miracles worked at her intercession.

Thérèse of Lisieux is the patron saint of aviators, florists, illness(es) and missions. She is also considered by Catholics to be the patron saint of Russia, although the Russian Orthodox Church does not recognise either her canonisation or her patronage. In 1927, Pope Pius XI named Thérèse a patron of the missions and in 1944 Pope Pius XII decreed her a co-patron of France with St. Joan of Arc.

For many years Thérèse's relics have toured the world, and thousands of pilgrims have thronged to pray in their presence.

On June 27, 2010, the relics of St. Thérèse made their first visit to South Africa in conjunction with the 2010 World Cup. They remained in the country until October 5, 2010.
 
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